The Victorian Sage

"Many shall run to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased"

Month: December, 2015

Dickens’ Christmas Rubbish: The Battle of Life (1846)

Charles Dickens’ first ‘Christmas Book’, A Christmas Carol (1843), is well known. But during the 40s he wrote 5 Christmas Books in total, and the others are much less well known. Least read of all, perhaps, is the fourth, The Battle of Life (1846). This book is fascinating because nobody has anything good to say about it. In Ruth F. Glancy’s introduction to her edition of Christmas Books, Christmas Stories  and Other Short Fiction: An Annotated Bibliography (1985), she announces that Battle is ‘with no argument at all, the most flawed and disliked’ of all Dickens’ works (p. xix). Not just the worst, but with no argument at all! In Peter Ackroyd’s Dickens (1990), he notes that the tale is ‘no longer widely read, and one which even at the time drew mainly unfavourable comment’ (p. 515). Even on the book’s Goodreads page, reactions are almost uniformly lukewarm. In short, it seems that nobody likes this book, despite it being written by the most adored English novelist of all. This in itself is intriguing, and, this being the Christmas season, the time was opportune for me to revisit Battle, which I had read years ago (knowing nothing of its reception; knowing only that, unlike Carol, I had never heard of this one), and had been singularly unimpressed by, immediately classing it as the worst Dickens I had read. I had forgotten virtually the whole thing, remembering only the impression, before my Yuletide re-reading of this week.

The book gains, of course, in intertextual interest for the reader who is familiar with Dickens’ works. Reading it now, my brain starts working on the connections with other Dickens works, the thematic and characterological resonances of better-known works. Battle looks both backwards and forwards. Like Carol, it has an element of personal re-awakening and transformation. The Scrooge equivalent is Dr Jeddler. Actually, though, he’s nowhere near as mean or vicious as Scrooge; his problem, rather, is that he is a philosopher:

Doctor Jeddler was, as I have said, a great philosopher, and the heart and mystery of his philosophy was, to look upon the world as a gigantic practical joke; as something too absurd to be considered seriously, by any rational man. His system of belief had been, in the beginning, part and parcel of the battle-ground on which he lived, as you shall presently understand.

[…]

The Doctor never dreamed of inquiring whether his children, or either of them, helped in any way to make the scheme a serious one. But then he was a Philosopher.

A kind and generous man by nature, he had stumbled, by chance, over that common Philosopher’s stone (much more easily discovered than the object of the alchemist’s researches), which sometimes trips up kind and generous men, and has the fatal property of turning gold to dross and every precious thing to poor account.

The degree of sarcasm Dickens injects into the word ‘philosopher’ in this work is striking. The entire book is basically a riposte to the Doctor’s attitude. Hence the title: life is a Battle; it’s not a joke. And of course I can’t help thinking of Carlyle here, and wondering if Dickens had been reading On Heroes in 1846:

It is a most earnest thing to be alive in this world; to die is not sport for a man. Man’s life never was a sport to him; it was a stern reality, altogether a serious matter to be alive!

Anyway, bearing in mind his predecessor, we know the Doctor is bound for a change of heart. But unlike Scrooge, Dr Jeddler is basically a secondary character, and this is not the emotional centre of the story. The Dr interests the Dickensian in pointing back to Scrooge and also in pointing forward to Gradgrind in Hard Times (1854) – also an essentially decent man whose mind has been warped by too much philosophy – but the essential interest of the tale is not centred on this character.

**spoilers**

Rather it’s in the curious contrivance by which his daughters arrange their romantic lives. Dickens is here itching at a sore that was to resonate through much of his ensuing work: the ill-matched couple and the torment a poor match can create. The daughters of Dr J are beautiful, sweet and pure – stereotypical Dickens heroines; this book is perhaps inferior to Hard Times in that it never gets round to establishing a connection between the Dr’s philosophy and his daughter’s romantic issues, leaving them as separate themes not causally linked in the plot. The relative complexity of Louisa Gradgrind elevates Hard Times over Battle. One daughter, Marion, runs away from home and remains missing and believed eloped for six years so that her long-time betrothed, Alfred, can marry her sister, Grace, because she does not love him and she believes that Grace and Alfred love each other. And she’s right, they do, and they do marry, and she returns, and marries another man who she really loves – but not one whom she was already in love with at the time of the pseudo-elopement of course: that would have rendered her scheme self-serving and devious.

This plot contrivance sees Dickens bending over backwards to legitimise and heroize the rejection of a marriage that, though not unsuitable, doesn’t feel right. Marion is effectively married: she’s known Alfred since they were children, and she likes him, but without passion. Here again, Dickens was to take this a step further in Hard Times, when it’s post-marriage that the character in question discovers his need to get away – an even more difficult situation. In Battle, Dickens’ attempt to deal with it is unimpressive: he retreats into a fantastically melodramatic plot device an uses particularly one-dimensional characters. But there is a seriousness about this book, signalled in the title and perhaps drawing its energy from this element of the plot, so close to Dickens’ own situation: gone are the youthful high spirits, humour is mostly absent. In is an increased tendency to moralize and deliver sanctimony, which one might argue to be linked to Dickens’ guilt about his urges towards divorce; as Freud argued, it is from guilt and bad conscience that the super-ego draws its power. This tension between desires/ instincts and the super-ego/moralizing was to provide many interesting works in Dickens’ later career, but in this book the complexity is not yet there, and the high spirits are already souring. Hence, I can’t argue with Battle’s place in the Dickens canon: it’s not a good or interesting work in its own right. Oh, and there’s no real Christmas element, either, only a passing mention that a key scene is taking place at Christmas – but that’s not a happy scene, so the spirit of Christmas isn’t exactly alive and well in this tale.

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How to Make a Contribution to Knowledge

This is the apportioned task of all doctoral researchers. Its difficulty lies in the post-modern problematization of the concept of knowledge. We have to argue that we are contributing to knowledge, even if the argument withinour thesis involves an assertion that knowledge is merely contingent, therefore our attempts to add to it are doomed to partiality and dependent on circumstance, i.e. a postmodern argument. Another view of knowledge, which is neither the classically rational nor the postmodern, is that of Paul Feyerabend. Feyerabend puts it as follows:

Knowledge […] is not a series of self-consistent theories that converges towards an ideal view; it is not a gradual approach to the truth. It is rather an ever-increasing ocean of mutually incompatible alternatives, each single theory, each fairy-tale, each myth that is part of the collection forcing the others into greater articulation and all of them contributing, via this process of competition, to the development of our consciousness. (Against Method, Verso, 2010, p. 14)

Here, then, knowledge can be added to, but without the rationalist presumption that knowledge can be perfected by a singular path to truth. Rather, a new path may come into existence with any individual thesis (which is what we are talking about here), which may be incompatible with other theses, may appear outlandish and sui generis, or even plainly wrong, but yet it may be treated as a contribution to knowledge, and may have that effect.

It is the notion of right and wrong that need to be relegated in doctoral studies in the humanities. The idea that a thesis has to “prove” something. “What have you set out to prove?”, you will be asked. This, I submit, is the wrong question. It is not the proven that is of sole importance, and humanities above all need to recognise this. All world religions have been not proven, but their importance is inestimable. Marxism, itself, in so far as it was verifiable, has been debunked by the failure of a dictatorship of the proletariat to arise. The “logical force” of Marx’s argument has given way to this empirical fact, but the “material effect” of Marxism has remained massive, and its attraction to academia similarly. Feyerabend insists on the virtual inextricability of “logical force” and “material effect”, such that one should never simply talk of an argument’s logical force, but also include the material effect from the beginning – not so neat, but if we wish to understand the development of consciousness, and contribute to it, necessary (Feyerabend, p. 9). The provenness of an argument may be quite secondary. So when a humanistically inclined scholar sets out to write a thesis, they should set out, I submit, not to “prove” any one thing or the other, but to add an alternative, which then enters into play with the many other alternatives already floating round the ocean of knowledge.

The strange couplings that will ensue between this and that alternative are not wholly foreseeable, historical circumstances being as chaotic and ever-changing as they are, but the addition of a new alternative is in itself dynamic, and, even if it is an alternative we feel sure is fundamentally wrong, disagreement is in itself a stimulus – further, we do not, unfortunately, know that this alternative is wrong. The last instance in which knowledge is finally exactly defined and contributions to it specified and isolated never comes. Proof is a posture: when we analyze texts and historical moments and movements, we prove little. Only the relatively mundane is capable of being proved. To limit ourselves to the provable is wrong, and to declare those complex social, cultural and historical configurations that we study to be provable is also wrong.

We are not proving, we are simply adding, creating connections and creating the possibilities of further connections, which may or may not come to pass. Rather than trying to prove, I suggest we should try to introduce – introduce concepts, ideologies, and theories to each other. Perhaps they will hit it off, create a spark. We cannot know, can only produce the written form of our investigations. We don’t judge these investigations by their provability, but firstly, by the process as we experience it: understanding is produced by “playful activity”, Feyerabend says (p. 10), like children; secondly, by how others can work with it – can it create engagement? If we can do these things, we will be more productive, creative, and, of course, happier. If we seek to prove the improvable, we condemn ourselves to intellectual torment, we bore ourselves and others, we twist the available facts and select what we can use, we are always vulnerable – even, perhaps, to our own conscience. Only the greatest openness to the ocean of mutually incompatible alternatives can keep us engaged with knowledge, rather than ossifying in some self-validating theory that explains all the world in a certain number of pages, and closes of all of history that contradicts it. I will close with Feyerabend again, on scientific education:

It simplifies “science” by simplifying its participants: first, the domain of research is defined. The domain is separated from the rest of history (physics, for example, is separated from metaphysics and from theology) and given a “logic” of its own. A thorough training in such a “logic” then condition those working in the domiain; it makes their actions more uniform and it freezes large parts of the historical process as well. (p. 3)

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